Hawthorne’s spring meet is a mere week away and I was fortunate to get some inside information from Jim Miller (Hawthorne’s main guy) regarding some of the items we can look forward to! I think we’re going to see some excellent racing coming up in Chicago and I hope you will agree.
Chicago Dark Horse
: Hi Jim! I see you're back from your wintery travels visiting other tracks in the country! How was your time off?
: The time off was great, but also very short. We kept many horses stabled and training at Hawthorne this fall so time has flown by. I was able to travel to Turfway Park, Fairmount Park, Oaklawn Park and Fair Grounds to visit our Chicago horsemen and their response for their return to Hawthorne has been excellent!
CDH: I’m glad you made it back safe! Can you clue us in on some of the activities happening at Hawthorne during the winter break?
: The mild winter has surely made things much easier on maintaining the race track. Our Track Superintendant, Greg Cardenas, is the best in the nation. No other trackman in the country has to deal with the change in weather conditions that Greg deals with and not only has he kept the surface in great shape for racing, but the surface is also the safest in the state and has played without any bias, giving every horse a shot in every race. People don't realize that Greg has worked on this surface for nearly 30 years in some capacity, but his knowledge on maintaining a dirt track cannot be surpassed by anyone.
CDH: It’s great to have that kind of expertise in house! So in those years of experience I’m sure you’ve had to deal with many different kinds of weather conditions. How has the weather affected the track and training this winter?
JM: During the winter of 2010-2011, we had a lot of snow and had some rather cold temps. Many horsemen missed training due to conditions as we had record snowfall. This year we have missed only two days of training in the winter downtime. For the facility, we remain open as a full card simulcasting venue.
CDH: Are there any other additions we can expect to see at Hawthorne this spring?
JM: Yes! We are expanding box seating on the main level. This will put our fans closer to finish line and provide an even better racing experience. In addition, we are launching the Hawthorne mobile application so that fans can make wagers on site with their smart devices and also get information on entries, scratches, etc.
(Adding new box seating at Hawthorne - picture by Jim Miller)
CDH: Ah, the paperless wagering experience! Right up my alley! I hear that many horses did not ship out from Hawthorne this winter. What does that mean for horse fitness and quality of racing?
JM: Many horses did remain at Hawthorne. In 2011, we were as low as 740 horses stabled during the winter dark period and only had 950 horses on the grounds when the meet opened. With improved purses, weather, and a great surface to train on, the lowest we hit was 940 horses this winter and we already have surpassed 1,200 on the grounds a week prior to the open of our meet.
CDH: Wow! No missed training and workout tabs where most horses are working 5F or more means more fit horses, more starters (fuller fields) and better quality racing. Most excellent! What other kinds of things will Hawthorne do to maintain and/or increase field sizes this spring?
JM: As I mentioned before, I already think we are in great shape for the meet due to the amount of horses that are currently in training at Hawthorne this spring. As you know, Mother Nature has a big influence as well.
I think the purses and a great racing and training surface are the key to success. Horsemen know they can make money at Hawthorne and also the additional funds from the impact fees being released last fall helps a big deal. Here, horsemen also have a safe and fair surface to keep their horses fit and healthy. In addition, to make it worthwhile to horsemen to want to race at Hawthorne as well, we will be adding to the purse of all races with fields of 8 betting interests or larger. And to top that, to help cover some travel expenses for horsemen shipping from off site, we will be paying $200/horse for those who ship in to Hawthorne!
Finally, with Fairmount Park starting the first week of April instead of mid-March as they did in 2011, that makes a huge difference too. Many horsemen ship up to race at Hawthorne and more will be doing so now. We already shifted live racing from Tuesdays to Sundays this spring so we didn't compete with Fairmount on Tuesdays for horses.
: Wow Jim, you are very accommodating to the horsemen! Impressive! To change the subject, are you expecting any new names or faces around the track this spring?
For trainers, a pair of things pops up. First of all, trainers such as Dale Bennett and Tammy Domenosky did not ship to Florida to race this fall and instead have chosen to stay in training at Hawthorne with a focus on the spring meet. Also, barns such as Christine Janks, Moises Yanez, Wayne Catalano and Jimmy DiVito who normally have horses turned out or in Florida at this time have kept a large presence at Hawthorne. Trainers such as Roger Brueggemann, Frank Kirby and Joel Berndt load up for this meet and are prepared again. A boost to Brueggemann that came last fall remains for the spring as the nation's leading owner, Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. has nearly 50 horses stabled at Hawthorne this spring after having only a handful here during the 2011 spring meet. CDH
: Wow, did Florent Geroux, Roger Brueggeman, and Midwest Thoroughbreds have a great fall meet in 2011 or what!?! Whom are you expecting to have a great meet this spring?
JM: I fully expect that combination to have another great spring meet. I really like the operation that Midwest Thoroughbreds run. Knowing Hector Magana from his training here in Chicago for many years and knowing he is in charge of their farm in Florida means that everything is done by the book and done well. The owners, Rich and Karen Papiese do what is best by their horses and I believe they get a bad rap because they are a claiming outfit. At the same time, they have many, many horses claimed off of them. What Midwest Thoroughbreds has done well is place their horses properly across the country in the care of good trainers between Brad Cox, Roger Brueggemann and Jamie Ness.
Additionally, you have to expect Frank Kirby is going to have a good meet as he has some nice three-year-olds just getting started. Chris Dorris is also a sleeper in spring meets to jump up with big meets and I think Tammy Domenosky and Dale Bennett will benefit greatly by remaining here this winter.
The jock to watch out for is Francisco Torres. Cisco is one of the most talented riders I have ever seen and he makes decisions to allow his horse the best possible chance to perform well, even if they may not be the best horse in the race. Francisco has had his battles throughout his career, but right now he is focused and is truly a great rider and a great guy.
CDH: I think that’s great for the fans who like to see their favorite trainers and horses on the track to have the trainers stick around over the break. It also sounds like we’ll have some great talent hanging around the track this spring! It looks like we have the return of a stakes race too! Can you give us more information on that?
: Yes, here are a couple of big things in regards to the spring stakes races. First, the purse for the Illinois Derby has returned to $500,000 after being reduced to $300,000 last spring. A sign for the timing and strength of this race is shown through the early nominations as we had 91 horses nominate early for the Illinois Derby. Also, the Grade 3, $200,000 Sixty Sails Handicap returns this year after a year off. The timing and distance for this race is perfect for older handicap females and the 2010 running produced a pair of Grade 1 winners in Life At Ten and Jessica Is Back.
CDH: What are you most excited about for this spring's stakes schedule?
JM: The Illinois Derby is always the big day. Knowing that the race is sending at least one horse, and often times multiple horses to represent us in the Kentucky Derby is very exciting. We have also added the $60,000 Cryptoclearance Stakes for older horses going 1 1/16 miles on that day which should make for a great race too!
CDH: Musket Man came in and won the Illinois Derby in 2009, then went onto run in the Kentucky Derby! Are you privy to any star runners or local favorites that might be joining us on April 7th?
JM: It's too early to say exactly who is coming. The good thing is you know the winner will have enough earnings to make the Kentucky Derby. What is great about our race is we are located in the Midwest and the race is run on dirt. That can prove to be an advantage to horses looking to get their final prep in and is also a nice draw for West coast runners looking to ship to the Midwest for a start prior to the Derby.
CDH: I'm also so happy to see six stakes races for state-breds on Illinois Champions Day! What do you think fans can look forward to most on April 28th?
JM: Illinois Champions Day is always a great day. We had seen a lull in the Illinois-bred program recently but I noticed an influx of young runners late in the 2011 fall meet. It seems like young horses have had to take a bit longer to get started in recent years. What it will help is our three-year-old program this spring though. Then, as always, the races for the older horses are always quite competitive and usually produce some nice prices. This races give horses a chance to take a stakes shot too that may have been running in claiming company. Look to Illinois Champions Day in 2011 as both Catalina Way and Denham won, each a horse that had been running for a tag.
CDH: Rumor has it that there will even be a better wagering experience for the fans. Can you elaborate?
JM: Certainly! We are always trying to make things more fan friendly for the bettors. Starting last fall we reduced the takeout on the Pick 6, Place Pick 9 and High 5 from 25% to 20%, and we also added the $.50 Pick 5 with a low takeout of 14%. This year we are reducing the minimum wager on the Pick 4 to $.50 to allow fans more combinations for one of the more popular wagers out there. And now with the expanded box seating and mobile application that I mentioned before, we are helping enhance the fan experience more than ever!
CDH: I think another one of the great ways to get fans involved is the weekly Jim VS. contest! Can you give a little more information on that? Do you have any fans already lined up for the spring?
JM: I do have some fans lined up for the spring meet but will be filling out the schedule as we move along. We are an entertainment facility in a sport where the odds are set by the players. I enjoy being at the races every day and am lucky enough to get to pick horses as a part of my job. In Jim Vs., I am able to bring fans on the air with me to test their handicapping skills. I have been beaten a few times but I always have a good time and I want the contestants on the show to have a memorable experience as well.
: Ah yes, I do remember that experience very well! That was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had at the race track! Who won that one again??? Anyway, I also understand that TVG is the national TV carrier for Hawthorne as I’ve seen on their channel many times. What kind of improvements or changes can we expect this spring in terms of TV viewership?
JM: TVG has been a great supporter of Hawthorne through the years. This year we will increase coverage as we have installed additional TV lines so TVG can have a clean feed of our signal and be able to show Hawthorne at any time without having to worry about any graphics we may be showing in house. Also, we now have a direct connection with TVG so we can conduct more interviews, or provide news and handicapping segments for TVG every racing day.
CDH: Well I certainly look forward to see more of Hawthorne featured on TV! Finally Jim, what are you looking forward to most this spring?
JM: Opening Day!!!!
Amazing. It seems to me that Hawthorne is primed and ready for one of their best spring meets ever. I’m fortunate to be part of the action and I hope to see all of you there! What moments are you looking forward to most at Hawthorne this spring?
Leave a comment below!!